The following are ideas about what reasoning is and about what it is to be reasonable. It also offers some conjectures about why many people don't seem to have good reasoning skills or to be very reasonable. It is offered here for students whose teachers do not seem to think very highly of their work, but who themselves do not make very clear what they think is wrong with it. In some cases students and professors may have very different ideas about what it is to show good reasoning in a paper or class or to present a case in a reasonable manner.
There are some things that are difficult to distinguish between whether they are being done badly or whether they are not even being done at all. It is crucial to understand the difference, for it is often not helpful to try to improve the performance of someone who is not even doing what you are trying to get him to do better. He won't see you as improving his performance but as merely changing it. It will generally not serve much purpose, for example, to correct the children's chess moves until you explain to them what chess is and what the rules and goal are. Otherwise if you try to "correct" a move, they may simply say "but we do it this way."
There are common exaggerated uses of the distinction between doing something badly and not doing it at all. If a person dances very poorly, other people might say they are not sure what he is doing, but he is certainly not dancing. We say of some people's culinary efforts not just that they are bad cooks but that they "can't cook at all." And we say some people "cannot sing a note," though they may think they are singing. These seem to me to be satirical applications of the distinction rather than real examples of it, as in the above chess case. But there are some cases where it is not clear how we might describe the situation. Yet an accurate description or understanding of the case may be crucial for improving someone's performance.
Suppose someone does a math problem very poorly, using algebraic language and symbols but utilizing "reasoning steps" that seem to us very bizarre, and when asked to explain why he used those steps, says "I am using algebra". If his steps and reasons were so far removed from anything remotely approaching GOOD algebraic reasoning, we may be quite tempted to feel that he did not use algebra but merely what he mistakenly thought was algebra. It may be not just that he does not understand how to work this problem, but that he does not understand what algebra "is about" in general. These are two different difficulties, requiring two different approaches to remedy.
Or students may write an exam answer or do an assignment in such a way that it incorporates all the features a teacher requires, but does it in such a way that shows either the student does not understand those features well or that he did not get the point of the features. Knowing the cause of the problem is important to correcting it effectively.
Recently it occurred to me in one of those all-encompassing revelations that "reasoning" itself is an activity that some people sometimes seem to do so badly that it is more accurate and more helpful to think of them as not actually reasoning at all, though they may mistakenly think they are, and though they may be doing something that seems like reasoning. What makes this "all-encompassing" is that it explains a great deal of what seems to be poor decision-making and poor logical ability on the part of a great many people, not all of whom are students, and not all of whom are outside positions of wealth, power, influence, and authority.
When teaching, I have always concentrated, not just on presenting "factual" subject content, but, on trying to get students to see logical relationships in the material and, when necessary, trying to improve general reasoning skills, so that the conceptual and logical aspects of the subject matter would make sense to students and so that they could derive needed or new material, thereby depending less on memory. I pointed out various sorts of common fallacies and I required myself and students to justify our views in class, trying to expose fallacious or weak reasoning wherever it appeared. Many students seemed to catch on and to become skilled, but there were students who seemed not to get it at all and who were either just debating to try to score trivial points or who gave reasons that just seemed to make no sense or were repetitions of points we had just shown flawed. Many of these students were quite intelligent, as are many quite successful adults who nevertheless seem quite often not to be very sensible or reasonable about various matters. I think it is not so much that these people reason badly as that they are not reasoning at all, but merely emulating the outward behavior of people they believe to be reasoning. They are behaving like the above children who are moving chess pieces.
In teaching my own courses (as opposed to teaching isolated topics in
another teacher's course or in a one-time forum) I had explained what it
was to be logical and reasonable, but I now believe that even when I did
that, I did it too summarily, and incorrectly assumed the students understood
what "being reasonable" is. I thought they only needed to improve or focus
their reasoning skills. I now believe that most people do not know what
it is to be logical or rational or reasonable; and I think that.............